BLOG from our #ABKLaw Partner Michael Jaccarino, Esq.: COVID-19 will forever alter the criminal justice system
Courts throughout New York State have decided that the ends of justice are served by ordering the postponements on non-essential court matters, as the COVID-19 health crisis outweighs the interest of the public in having a speedy trial. These delays will inject a very significant delay into a court system that was already overburdened. This impact will completely jolt the system that may crumble under the pressure! It has long been said by criminal justice analysts that if every criminal defendant refused a plea deal and demanded a trial, the system would fall apart, as there are not enough judges, prosecutors and jurors to handle the trials. The court system will face similar pressures that will not dissipate quickly or go away when the corona virus pandemic wanes. Unlike civil caseloads, criminal caseloads have been somewhat immune to the court system backlogs thanks to the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, which sets deadlines for federal prosecutions and ensures that defendants do not sit in jail indefinitely waiting for their day in court. Pre-COVID, it generally took an average of 7 months for a federal court to close a criminal case. However, in many overburdened districts, it can take 3x as long. For instance, in the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, the average time was 21 months. Now, with 82% of federal courts mandating delays, these numbers will sky rocket! While its easy to see the necessity for postponing public trials, jury selection and case conferences, the harder question will be figuring out what to do when the virus dissipates and there is a massive backlog of trials and persons in jail awaiting those trials. Will the system be able to handle it?
On a related note, COVID-19 is changing the criminal justice system in other ways. Across the country, police departments are reducing arrests and instituting “cite and release” policies, in order to prevent overcrowding in jail. These changes, which had already been instituted in NYS, have been sought by progressives and activists for decades and they will be difficult to reset after this pandemic ends. Will this temporary changes institute a new norm in policing, incarceration, and criminal justice across the country?
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